The way open space in Anne Arundel County is treated will change after new rules were approved Monday night by the County Council, amid jeers from the audience.
The sponsor of the open space bill, Councilman Jamie Benoit (D-4th District) of Crownsville, argued that the current rules governing open space in the county don’t make sense. After years of changes, Benoit said the rules had become a patchwork that allow for some uses but not others.
Under the old rules, one could build an ice skating rink or a county wastewater treatment facility on open space—but not a baseball field. Golf was the only permitted activity on grass.
"Our code as it's currently drafted creates these crazy results," Benoit said during a hearing in March. "You can have recreation so long as you play it in water, or on its frozen form, but once you play the sport on grass, unless it's golf, our code doesn't allow it."
Benoit’s changes—first introduced in February and ultimately approved on Monday night—change those rules to allow for more recreational uses in the county on land declared as open space, which comprises more than 34,000 acres.
The bill also opens the door to a proposed expansion onto the , near the Annapolis Roads community. over the school's purchase of land on the golf course to build new classrooms and recreational fields. That lawsuit is still pending.
The Key School's proposal quickly became a lightning rod for opponents of the bill, some of whom have said special-interest groups are driving sweeping changes to the county’s open space rules.
“The longer we draw this out, the more we expose the bill for what it is,” said Patrick McDermott, an Annapolis Roads resident. “What I see is The Key School against Annapolis Roads, with a developer hovering in the background.”
Chester "Trip" Buckenmaier said the issue at stake wasn’t ball fields or Key School—it was the environment. Much of the open space that’s left in the county is tied to streams and rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, and he said the bill doesn’t provide safeguards for the environment.
“These areas are our last protections between the bay and the pollutants,” Buckenmaier said. “The bay depends on Anne Arundel County and, councilmen, Anne Arundel County depends on the bay.”
The bill has been the focus of several public hearings during the past three months. On Monday, the bill had its final hearing with more than a dozen residents turning out to ask council members to vote it down.
Just before voting, John Grasso (R-2nd District) of Glen Burnie, said the decision seemed obvious to him.
"This is one messed-up situation we have here," Grasso said. "But this job as a councilman, you know, it's a pretty easy job if you just listen to the people."
Grasso noted that the majority who spoke during the several hearings were against the bill, and only a few had spoken in favor of it.
But council members approved the measure by a 5-2 vote, with Councilmen Chris Trumbauer (D-6th District) of Annapolis and Grasso voting nay.
The final vote was read amid boos and jeers from the audience, most of whom immediately left the council’s chambers loudly. By the time they had all exited, the chamber’s seats were nearly all emptied.
Larry Tom, the county’s planning and zoning officer, agreed with Benoit that changes should be made to the regulations, but wanted a chance to look at the rules further before a vote was taken.
For the past few weeks, Tom has been working on a comprehensive overhaul of the open space regulations. Throughout recent council meetings, he has asked for more time to complete them. During Monday’s meeting, Tom said his regulations could be delivered to the council by the summer.
Trumbauer asked the council to wait and see what Tom would deliver. But when the vote was called, the majority of the council approved it. Whether Tom’s look at the open space regulations will change the course of the rules in the future remains to be seen.